Joseph Browning, 10, gives the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness author the third degree.
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness was full of details of fascinating mythical stories. How did you research the series?
Of course I’ve read a lot about the people of 6,000 years ago, but that’s only part of it. I want the reader to feel that they’re right there in Torak’s world, living the adventure with him, and to do that, I try as far as I can to experience what they do. For Wolf Brother, I rode through the forests of Finland, learning about tracking and forest. For Spirit Walker, I went to Greenland to see how the Inuit made kayaks and clothes from seal hides and I swam with wild killer whales in Arctic Norway. For Soul Eater, I went husky-sledding and met wild polar bears in Canada. Since then, I’ve climbed glaciers, tracked beaver and elk, and tried hard to avoid angering musk-oxen (which are like very furry bison, with uncertain tempers). While I was climbing a mountain for Ghost Hunter, I fell and bashed my cheekbone on a rock, which turned out to be extremely useful as I learned how Torak feels when it happens to him. The best fun has been making friends with wolves. I go to a wolf sanctuary where there’s a beautiful wolf named Torak whom I first met when he was a tiny ball of fluff. He’s my favourite.
Your characters are so imaginative. Are they inspired by ancient myths or are they entirely original?
The characters and beliefs in the stories are a blend of fact and imagination, and yes, I have been inspired by real myths. Take Torak’s enemies, the Soul-Eaters. Among many real hunter-gatherer cultures, there’s one person who’s in touch with the spirit world. Such people are called witch-doctors or shamans, and they mostly use their powers to cure the sick and see into the future. This gave me the idea for the Soul-Eaters; but then I made them evil, rather than good.
How many literary festivals have you been to and what do you enjoy most about them?
I’m afraid I’ve lost count. By far the best thing about festivals is meeting my readers. Sometimes they bring me photos of themselves dressed up as the characters, or of wolves, or drawings of scenes from the stories. Once, a boy gave me a beautiful flint knife that he’d made himself.
Which of your books have you most enjoyed writing and why?
That’s a bit like asking a parent which is their favourite child – in other words, impossible! If I had to choose, though, I’d say that it keeps changing, as it’s usually the book I’ve just finished, since it’s fresh in my mind, and yet all the hard work is over. So, right now, my sort-of favourite is Ghost Hunter.
What would you be if you were not an author?
Leah El-Tibi, six, quizzes the Winnie the Witch illustrator.
Did you draw a lot when you were a child?
I drew every day and I’ve not stopped for the last 50 years. My grandmother was a great South African Artist and a huge inspiration. She had a farm in the Kalahari and her house was full of drawings. She would draw the bushmen as they passed through the land and stopped for water. When she got too old to draw she gave me all her pencils and watercolours.
I like drawing horses but I find them quite difficult. Do you have any tips?
We all find horses difficult. Go and look at them, take some photos and draw from them. Every illustrator uses reference material. With a photo it becomes a lot easier and, after a while, you can start using your memory.
Where do you get your ideas from?
From the little grey cells in my head.
Do you have children?
Yes. Zoë, our daughter, has just graduated from Camberwell Art school as a sculptor and ‘The Boy’ Oska is doing his A-Levels.
Do they like your books?
I hope so!
Four-year-old Otis Alexander deliberates naughtiness with the Harry and the Dinosaurs creator.
I’ve just read What’s the Time, Little Wolf. Do foxes and wolves really eat mice?
Wolves (and foxes) love mice and any other small creatures they can catch. Little Wolf’s favourite food is mice pies and rabbit rolls. Sometimes wolves and foxes jump up and come down on their two front paws near where the mice are hiding in the grass or snow, so as to shake them out of their hiding places. Ask your dad to look on Google and he may find a picture of a fox – or wolf – doing this. Try searching under ‘arctic fox’.
My dad says your books encourage bad behaviour. Is it good to be naughty?
Ah, but my Little Wolf books are written for small children to share with their parents. If the parents and children find the behaviour naughty, they talk about it – and decide what would be better behaviour. If your dad thought that Little Wolf was a good boy, my guess is that he is probably big and bad himself. I think everybody is naughty sometimes, but I think that the world would be a dreadful place if everyone were naughty all the time.
I’m now reading Harry and the Snow King. How do you make a snowman?
To make a snowman, you have to gather lots of snow. When you have scooped up a nice big clump, you make a body. You make a smaller lump or ball for the head and plop it on top. If you want arms and legs, you need sticks. Bits of coal are good for eyes. Smarties make a nice mouth and a carrot is very important. What do you think that’s for?
The nose. Where are Harry’s dinosaurs?
They live in a bucket. That’s what Harry thinks, anyway.
12-year-old Holly Jhoolun wants writing tips from the Tracy Beaker author.
Your books often deal with troubles that children may face like the death of a relative, moving home and divorced parents. Do you hope young readers will be able to take advice from your stories?
It’s a wonderful bonus when children feel comforted if my books deal with specific problems they’ve experienced themselves. Sometimes you can feel very lonely and worried when you’re growing up and it’s so reassuring to realise that lots of other children are going through similar troubles. But, basically, I simply try to write to amuse and entertain children with a diverting story. I do often deal with sad issues but I try hard to lighten the tone with some funny parts – and I nearly always have a happy ending.
I often write my own stories for school projects, competitions and just for fun! Do you have any advice about story writing for young authors?
It’s great that you like writing too. I always tell young people who like writing to read as much as they can – not to copy ideas, but to stimulate your own imagination and increase your vocabulary. It’s also a good idea to keep a diary, to encourage a daily writing habit. But find a very good hiding place if you confide special secrets!
Daniel Jhoolun, aged 10, asks Darren Shan how scary is too scary.
Cirque Du Freak was really cool. Why did you choose to name the main character Darren Shan?
I name him after myself in order to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. I wanted readers to be able to believe that the story was really true. Darren the character isn’t actually based directly on me. We share many things in common, but there are big differences, too. For instance, in real life I’m rather scared of spiders, whereas in the book Darren loves them and the entire plot hinges around his fascination with arachnids.
If you could choose to be one of the other characters you have created, which one would you be and why?
I’d love to be Cormac Limbs. He’s a guy who can cut off pieces of his body, and then those pieces grow back again instantly. I think it would be a great talent to have, especially at a party!
Have you ever written a story and then changed the plot because you thought it might be too scary for your readers?
Not really. I spend a lot of time editing my books, and I do make many changes, but I never really worry about scaring my readers – I think a good horror book should be scary! But I do sometimes tone down certain passages if I think I have gone too far. I always think of what a scene would be like to read out in a classroom or library, and if I write something that I would feel uncomfortable reading out in that situation, I change it.
Leila Alexander, aged six, hunts camels with the local writer.
Can you still find all the camels shown in The Camel that got Away?
It’s hard to find some of those brightly painted camels now, but if you look very carefully you may still spot a few of them. It seems that some of them have rather grand ideas and like the smart hotels in town. When I visit schools I occasionally find a camel there too, and I’ve seen a few of them heading to the airport. Perhaps they fancy a holiday! You could keep a spotter’s diary and make a note each time you see one.
What do you think happened to the Emirates Banker camel?
Well, I hope the Emirates Banker camel is very happy, wherever he is. The Camel that got Away is his story, and I would like to think that that’s what happened to him – I can’t say too much because I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it yet! If you read the introduction to the story you will know that a replacement Emirates Banker camel was made. For a long time he stood outside the bank on Al Wasl road, and I used to wave to him when I drove past, but I can’t see him there any more. Do you know what’s happened to him?
Do you write stories about other animals?
Yes, I love animals, and I enjoy writing about them. I particularly like writing about animals from this region. One of my favourite characters is Humpy Grumpy Camel. So far I have written two rhyming stories about him, and he will probably have another adventure soon!
Etiene van den Berg, aged 12, probes Britain’s best-loved poet.
What is your favourite book?
I usually don’t like telling anybody which of my books is my favourite in case the others get jealous, but I will make an exception in the case of you, Etiene. It is Bad Bad Cats, because I like the naughty cats who appear in the poems, as well as the sequence at the end of the collection, called the ‘Carnival of the Animals’, which I often perform in concert with the London Mozart Players.
What atmosphere do you like to write in?
I can write anywhere. As I don’t drive, I spend a lot of time on trains and buses, which are fine for writing. At home I have a study where I hide when there is work to be done about the house.
What influenced you to start writing?
When young, I liked the verse of Kenneth Graham and Enid Blyton. Robert Louis Stevenson and James Reeves when a little older.
Does poetry have to rhyme?
No, poetry does not have to rhyme and many of my poems don’t. However I enjoy rhyming and it can help to make the poems more memorable.